U.S. Reps. George Miller (D-CA) and John Barrow (D-GA) yesterday announced legislation to help prevent combustible dust explosions like the one at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Georgia, in early February that killed 12 workers and critically injured 11 others.

Miller, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, also announced he would convene a full committee hearing into the worksite risks of dust explosions on March 12.

The Miller-Barrow legislation would force OSHA to issue rules regulating combustible industrial dusts, like sugar dust, that can build up to hazardous levels and explode.

"The tragedy at Imperial Sugar shows that the threat of dust explosions is very real at industrial worksites across America and needs to be addressed immediately," said Miller. "It's unfortunate that it takes the Congress of the United States to tell OSHA how to do its job. The agency has known about these dangers for a long time and should have acted years ago to prevent explosions like this one."

"We owe it to the [Imperial Sugar] victims and their families to do everything we can to prevent this kind of disaster from ever happening again," said Barrow.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which is investigating the Imperial Sugar explosion, has preliminarily concluded that the explosion was caused by combustible sugar dust.

Following an extensive study of combustible dust explosions in 2006, the CSB recommended that OSHA issue rules to address the risks of dust explosions. OSHA, however, has offered no indication that it is planning to issue rules on combustible dust. Last October the agency launched a National Emphasis Program to address the hazard.

Appearing Monday at a news briefing, OSHA chief Ed Foulke, Jr. said any regulations should follow an ongoing investigation that could take up to six months. He said OSHA takes the CSB proposals seriously and hasn't “ruled out” implementing new standards.

The National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization, has established voluntary guidelines to control combustible dust hazards and prevent dust explosions. Miller and Barrow said yesterday that these voluntary standards must be made mandatory.

The proposed legislation would force OSHA to issue emergency rules within 90 days that include measures to improve housekeeping, engineering controls, building design, explosion protection and worker training, and to finalize those rules within 18 months.